Elite 8 next, hard not to Love this North Carolina team that just keeps winning
When it was over, and the North Carolina team he’s steered through storms and sunshine had advanced to the program’s 27th Elite 8, Caleb Love did what any young man might do. He hugged his mom.
my backbone! wouldn’t be here without this woman! love you mommy💙 https://t.co/FiyrcmjgZY
— Caleb Love (@caleb2love) March 26, 2022
It wasn’t just securing one of North Carolina’s most surprising trips to the Elite 8 that made Love so full of, well, love.
It was everything came together for the Tar Heels’ enigmatic point guard so suddenly on Friday night.
Love was miserable in the Round of 32, playing by his own admission one of his worst games of what has otherwise been a redemption story of a sophomore season. Love had 6 turnovers against only 2 assists in Carolina’s win over Baylor, and scored just 5 points on 1-6 shooting. Worse, after fouling out with 5 minutes to play, Love could only watch from a seat on the bench as his teammates coughed up what remained of the 25-point lead they had built on the defending national champions. When UNC rescued the game and with it, a trip to the Sweet 16 by winning in overtime, Love didn’t shy away from reflecting on how tough it was to watch from the sidelines.
“All I wanted was one chance to lead this team again,” Love said. “My teammates are wonderful and all year, the coaches have put us in position to win, and that’s what we did.”
The Tar Heels may have escaped Baylor, but to survive the regionals in Philadelphia, they would need the best version of Caleb Love available. How critical is Love to UNC? In 5 of North Carolina’s 9 losses, Love has coughed up 4 or more turnovers. In Love’s 2 seasons on campus, including what was a very frustrating freshman season for a 5-star player many expected to be a one-and-done, the Tar Heels are unbeaten when Love scores 20 points or more. The Tar Heels, you might say, go as Caleb Love goes.
Unfortunately for Love, the first half of Friday night’s game looked like more of the same. Love and North Carolina looked frustrated and out-of-sync in the first half, hounded by UCLA’s fierce man-to-man defense. Love finished the first half with 3 points and never looked comfortable.
Then, on a whim, he changed his shoes at halftime. New shoes, new player.
Love poured in 27 points in the second half, and scored 8 of North Carolina’s final 19 points, including 2 huge 3-pointers down the stretch. One of the shots, a stepback fadeaway triple where Love was well guarded, made zero sense. But it went in anyway. It was that kind of night for the sophomore, who has connected on 37% of his 3-point attempts on high volume this season after shooting a putrid 26% on similar volume as a freshman.
Caleb Love isn't shy, I guess pic.twitter.com/yG5tDbAljc
— Francesco Semprucci (@fra_sempru) March 26, 2022
Mars Blackmon might say it must have been the shoes, and Love didn’t argue after the game.
“(UNC Director of Operations Eric) Hoots told me to change them because I never play good in the black shoes, so he told me to change them, and it worked out,” Love said. Did it ever!
With Love unconscious and a supporting cast that included the usual double-double from Armando Bacot, who made the hustle play in the video above to save the ball and set up Love’s late game-tying 3, the Tar Heels simply made more plays than UCLA down the stretch. North Carolina didn’t get a ton of stops late in the game, but they got enough, and scored on 4 of 5 possessions in the final 3 minutes to seal the victory. Indeed, it was another hustle play by Bacot on a late-game tip where Bacot simply outmuscled multiple UCLA defenders for the ball and rebound, that put the game to bed.
Armando Bacot tips in the put-back to give UNC a 5 point lead late! pic.twitter.com/EGetATcpLY
— Aram Cannuscio (@AC__Hoops) March 26, 2022
Bacot is now tied with Kentucky’s Oscar Tshwiebe for the national lead in double-doubles this season, and it is Bacot, not Love, that poses the biggest mismatch issue for Cinderella Saint Peter’s, who await the Tar Heels in the Elite 8 Sunday afternoon. Considering the Peacocks have already weathered one such mismatch and defeated Tshiebe and Kentucky in this NCAA Tournament, North Carolina shouldn’t take Saint Peter’s lightly. The Peacocks are clearly unafraid of college basketball blue-blood royalty. But there is plenty of time before Sunday to discuss Saint Peter’s.
For now, it’s hard not to celebrate Caleb Love, who struggled mightily as a freshman but delivered the game of his life Friday night when his team needed him most. And speaking of Love, what’s not to love about this North Carolina team that, as recently as mid-February, was a bubble team without a Quad 1 win that had been humbled in the Dean Dome by lowly Pittsburgh.
The Tar Heels have won 9 of 10 since, fueled by an improved defense and of course, by Love. In the 10 games since the Pittsburgh loss, Love has played his best basketball of the season, averaging 17.4 points and 3.8 assists per game and limiting his turnovers to just 2.4 a contest.
That run of performances includes Love turning in his best games in some of Carolina’s biggest wins. Love was marvelous in the Tar Heels’ win at Virginia Tech (21 points, 7 assists) and at Duke (22 points, 5 assists), and he opened the NCAA Tournament with a 23-point, 3-assist night against a stingy Marquette defense. But he saved his best game for Friday night, and because of it, Carolina is on the precipice of the program’s 21st trip to the Final Four.
What’s not to love about that?